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Grauer's Gorilla one step closer to extinction

Posted on 04 September 2016

IUCN classifies species as Critically Endangered
After a shocking report earlier this year uncovered a catastrophic collapse in the population of Grauer’s gorilla, the world's largest primate has now been reclassified as Critically Endangered on the global list of species at risk of extinction, primarily due to illegal hunting.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced the change to the official status of the Eastern Gorilla - the Grauer's is a subspecies along with the even less numerous mountain gorilla - in the Red List of Threatened Species at the World Conservation Congress.

The IUCN pointed to the results of the report by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Fauna & Flora International (FFI), which showed a 77 percent drop in the number of Grauer’s gorillas, from an estimated 17,000 in 1995 to just 3,800 individuals today – all restricted to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

"The catastrophic decline in the Grauer’s gorilla subspecies as a result of rampant poaching and habitat destruction is a clear wake-up call for the Congolese government and the broader conservation community: we must all act now or watch one of our closest relatives continue to slide rapidly towards extinction," said Jean Claude Muhindo, WWF Country Director for DRC.
One of the primary causes of the decline in Grauer’s gorilla numbers has been the expansion in artisanal mining for coltan and other minerals found in gorilla range. Most of these artisanal mining sites are remote, which means that the miners often turn to local wildlife for food.
Although protected by law, gorillas are highly prized as bushmeat due to their large size and because they are easily tracked and killed as they move in groups on the ground in their small home ranges.

Additionally, baby gorillas are sought after for pets and trafficked internationally. In order to snatch a baby, poachers often kill the entire gorilla family.

"The DRC government and the international community must fully commit to reestablishing peace in this part of eastern Congo by removing the presence of armed groups and restoring law and order to provide an opportunity for local communities to rebuild and hope that the Grauer’s gorillas can recover. A radical protection effort is urgently needed to halt their dramatic decline," added Muhindo.
Three areas are now particularly crucial for the gorilla’s survival: Kahuzi-Biega National Park, the adjacent Punia Gorilla Reserve where WCS is supporting local communities to establish the reserve and manage and protect gorillas, and the remote unprotected Usala Forest, which has no support currently.

Despite the overall trend, Grauer's gorilla numbers have gone up in the Highlands Sector of Kahuzi Biega, which enjoys protection by the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN).
The Itombwe Nature Reserve also supports highly important outlying populations. WWF has been supporting the development of the reserve by working with ICCN to strengthen law enforcement activities, including anti-poaching efforts, and enhance land-use and management planning.
WWF also conducted an inventory of species in Itombwe in November-December 2015. Preliminary results confirm the alarming downward trend in Grauer’s gorilla numbers highlighted in the report – a trend that justifies raising the status of the Grauer’s gorilla to Critically Endangered.

"Given the scale of the threats and the rapid decline in its population, WWF called for the Grauer's gorilla to be relisted as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List," said Muhindo. "We believe this will help galvanize the national and international support – both political and financial – that is necessary to give the species a fighting chance.”

WWF is working closely with the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP) and communities to tackle threats and pressures on Grauer's gorillas and their habitat. These include patrols and monitoring for a better understanding of gorilla population demography and movements, in order to inform the best participative strategy.

Despite the devastating findings, cautious optimism prevails, as the situation is a reminder of the plight of mountain gorillas in the past. Closely related to Grauer's gorillas, mountain gorillas are also found in eastern DRC, as well as Rwanda and Uganda. Their numbers had also collapsed following insecurity and poaching, but intense conservation efforts, supported by state and community participation, have turned the tide: there are 880 mountain gorillas today, compared to only 620 in 1989.

"The Grauer's gorilla is now just a step away from extinction. Faced with ongoing poaching and habitat loss, it will be extremely difficult to save the species, but the success of efforts to conserve the mountain gorilla prove that it can be done given peace, community participation and high-level political will," said Muhindo.
Grauer's gorilla in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
© Carlos Drews / WWF
Grauer's gorilla in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
© Carlos Drews / WWF
Eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), Silverback male. Range: Eastern lowland areas of Central Africa.
Eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), Silverback male. Range: Eastern lowland areas of Central Africa.
© Martin Harvey / WWF